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Parallel to the Olympics, U.S. Paralympics supports athletes with impairments. Classification compares the absence of function between those with limb differences, spinal cord injuries, spina bifida, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and more. To complicate matters, individuals with the same diagnosis often have different motor abilities. The specific criteria to classify a swimmer usually leaves little room for debate or error—except for the most severe physical disabilities (S1 to S4), catchall categories with less precise guidelines.
On the wide deck of the nearly empty pool in Seattle, classifiers asked Beth questions. Her sincere answers minimized her quadriplegia. I thought about interrupting, but with muscle testing next, they would get a more accurate picture.
For the last assessment, I lowered Beth from her chair to the pool deck. She positioned herself at the edge before falling into the water. Classifiers observed closely as she did her best to comply with their requests. When asked to swim the breaststroke, she kept her arms in front of her in a variation of treading water. Her head dipped underwater after a few seconds.
Swimming forward on her stomach for the butterfly, freestyle, and breaststroke looked impossible.
The classifiers openly debated between S2 and S3 before settling on S3. Beth looked down and paused before thanking them. If they had said S2, her unofficial classification from the wheelchair games, her swim times rocked. The same times would not qualify for the Seattle meet as an S3; however, newly classified swimmers could race regardless. It made sense that a novice who had never worked with a swim coach would need to improve before ranking among the best.
After her appointment, Beth and I stayed at the pool complex for the picnic dinner to kick off the meet. We sat out of the way and watched the friendly crowd. Amazingly few athletes used a wheelchair. In street clothes, many had invisible disabilities.
“There were about 200 athletes from eight different countries,” Beth said. “The entire Australian and Mexican National Teams were there.”
We returned to the pool early the next morning for the first of the three day meet. A wide span of physical differences were apparent, but no one stared or judged. Paralympic rules banned artificial limbs and other supports in the water.
Prosthetic legs propped casually on the bleachers underscored the unspoken acceptance of disability.
Swimmers warmed up in the pool before the morning’s preliminary races (prelims) to the beat of pop music. An announcement informed us that those classified S1, S2, and S3 should use a specific end lane to warm up. No explanation was given because it was obvious: to avoid collisions with those who streaked down the right side of the lane, flipped to change direction, pushed off the wall with their feet, and swam back on the right side, completing a circle. Beth shared the designated lane with a few others for the first time and spent more time hanging on the wall than warming up. The other lanes teemed with fast, circling swimmers watched by attentive coaches.
We only had each other, small fish in a big pond.
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